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Travel

Congress Likely to Pass Tough Passengers’ Rights Bill

In an about-face, business travel groups are calling for lawmakers to approve a no-nonsense bill.

Congress is all but certain to pass a muscular passengers’ bill of rights this fall. The legislation will require airlines to provide passengers with adequate food, water, comfortable cabin temperature and ventilation and adequate restroom facilities anytime a plane is delayed on the tarmac. If the delay lasts three hours, the plane will have to return to the gate and allow passengers to disembark if they wish. Airports, as well as the airlines, will have to develop contingency plans for delayed flights that must be approved by the secretary of transportation. The Department of Transportation could fine carriers and airports that don’t comply.

Business travel groups are finally fed up and are joining consumer groups to push for strong action from Congress. In the past, business groups were sympathetic to arguments made by the airlines that a hard-and-fast rule could have unintended consequences, causing additional flight cancellations and even longer travel delays. But their views changed after passengers on a Continental Express regional jet in August were forced to spend seven hours on the tarmac overnight at Rochester International Airport in Minnesota. “The Rochester incident was definitely the catalyst,” says Stewart Verdery of the National Business Travel Association.

Business travel groups say that they’re seeing too many business travelers lose too much time. Too often they are held up so long that they miss a key meeting and no longer have a reason to make the trip, but still they are not allowed to disembark and go home. “Congress first held hearings on this issue 10 years ago…. Either the airlines cannot, or will not, fix this problem,” says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.

The combined pressure from these groups will nudge Congress to act. A provision encompassing an airline passenger bill of rights is in both the House and Senate versions of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. The House version doesn’t set a time for allowing passengers to deplane. That version appeared to have the best chance for passage until the incident in Minnesota. Now the Senate version with the three-hour time limit has the edge.

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